After the excitement of the engagement ring has died down, and wedding planning finally kicks in, one thing that many soon-to-be brides are battling with is whether to change their maiden name or not. Should you keep your name? Take his. Take his and make yours a middle name. Take his legally but use yours professionally. Hyphenate?
The options are numerous and deciding what to do can be a stressful task. And let’s also not forget how public opinion can arm-twist you into a decision. Many listen to what the family expects, what every female in their family has done after getting married and, of course, input from their fiancé. A 2010 study published in Basic and Applied Psychology showed women who change their names after marriage are more typically viewed as more “caring and emotional”, while women who kept their last names were as “smarter and more ambitious”. Based on this one decision, many people assume they know everything about who you are and what you’re all about. However, it’s good to know what a woman decides to do about her name after marriage is not cast in stone.
So where did this tradition start?
Historically, a woman in England would assume her new husband's family name (or surname) after marriage and this remains common practice in the United Kingdom today as well as in common law countries and countries where English is spoken, like Kenya.
However, after doing some online research, I found the practice of keeping one’s maiden name was born out of feminist philosophy in the 1850s. The practice was first introduced by US suffragette Lucy Stone. In the 1920s, members of the Lucy Stone League began to adopt this practice, and the feminist movement of the 1970s popularised it. It was a way for women to declare they were equal to men.
Now that we know the genesis of both spectrums, if a woman decides to keep her name, is it something that can lead to friction within the marriage, or with her husband’s family?
This is a critical question that should be discussed during the engagement phase. But it shouldn’t be a deal breaker because it is a personal decision, and you should be comfortable with whichever you choose. Your maiden name or surname has been your identity from when you were born, up to the time of your marriage and for some, changing their name can be an identity crisis.
I asked a few women what motivated them to either keep their last name — or to take their husbands' — after marriage.
Lydia, 26, told me it was straightforward for her. “I didn’t change my name when I got married last year and I have no plans to change it in the future – for professional reasons of course. My husband was okay with it. He understood why I wanted it this way. I don’t normally correct people when they assume we have the same last name. It, however, does kind of bother me when people call us 'Mr and Mrs His Full Name', as if I ceased to be a full person when I got married. But I have learnt to move past this.”
Catherine, 35, who’s is getting married soon, says she is simply not changing her name because she loves her name. "I'm getting married next July and I could not be happier to legally cement our commitment to each other. That being said, I'm not changing my name. I love my name and the family I associate it with; and it's the name that's on my degree, masters and PhD. I put a lot of work into creating a reputation for my name, and I don't think marrying someone makes my past accomplishments irrelevant. I'm proud of who I am and what I've done."
For some, marriage brings with it new possibilities and a new identity. Jeniffer, 28, embraced this ideology fully. "I dropped my surname name like a hot potato. It was one of my favourite things about getting married. I was more than happy to change my name because marriage for me felt like a new beginning."
"Plus his family is part of the one per cent! Who wouldn’t want to throw that around?” she adds jokingly.
Marjorie, 30, is totally the opposite of Lydia – well in her reasoning of course. She says that if showing commitment in a marriage is for a woman to change her surname, then she should be considered the most noncommittal person even after bearing three children with him and nursing him through a life threatening disease.
“I totally disagree with this view. I kept my maiden name because my last name isn't the measure of my commitment to my husband — my words and actions are. That should be enough. Also, I just really didn't want to go through changing my name on documents."
Can men take their wives' name?
The number of women who refuse to give up their maiden name when they marry has soared over recent years. So, are there men who are willing to compromise over their surnames?
Internationally, guardians of the Galaxy star Zoe Saldana revealed that her husband Marco Perego had chosen to take her name after they married. This of course raised a lot debate in Kenya where it seemed emasculating to many. Debate on radio stations, social media and the streets ranged from disbelief to theories of it being one of the signs that these are the end times.
“How can a man take up his wife’s name?
“Who married the other now?”
“Hiyo sasa ni kukaliwa chapati”
The men I talked to, however, said even though they would never in a million years take up their wife’s name, after they were married, they would never pressure her to take up theirs.
“I really don’t mind if she changes it or not, as long as the kids take up my surname." – Njau, 28.
“Because of her career I understand why it’s not feasible for her to change her name. But in public she better be known as Mrs (my last name)." – Jeff, 27.
“Though I wouldn’t mind her changing her name to mine, I would at least love her to maybe hyphenate it so that the world knows that we’re associated by marriage." – Rono, 37.
Why men want women to change their names
This is what they had to say:
“I'd like her to want to be a part of my family and be proud of our name.” – Kamau, 32.“One family. One name. If she didn't take my name, I'd seriously question her faith in us lasting as a couple.” – Musyoka, 40.
“She’s now a married woman; she’s no longer single. So if she insists on hanging on to her name, it sounds like she's trying to cling to her 'single person' identity.” – Odhiambo, 30.
What does the Bible say?
Although the Bible doesn’t directly address this issue, and while many Christians don’t think it’s wrong for a woman to keep her maiden name, Christian women who do change their names base their decision on these six biblically-based reasons:
Unity: The scripture says when you become married, you become one flesh with your husband. Changing your name to his reflects that fact. (Gen. 2:24; Matt.19:5)
Identification: It’s the man who launches out to establish a new family unit. Changing your name to his, and naming your children with the same name, identifies all of you as part of his family unit. (Gen. 2:24; Matt.19:5)
Commitment: Changing your name indicates you are making a permanent, life-long commitment to your husband, and will henceforth be identified as being inseparably linked to him. (Rom. 7:2; Matt. 19:6)
Roles: Changing your name to his indicates that you affirm the Biblical pattern of your husband being the head of your marriage and household. (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5)
Paradigm: Since the relationship between husband and wife is a paradigm of the relationship between Christ and the church, Christian women who change their name model and bear witness to the reality of Christ changing our names when we enter a relationship with Him. We — the church Bride — identify ourselves with Him and are called by His name when we become one with Him. Christ’s bride is rightly called by her Husband’s name. A woman who changes her name bears witness to this part of the gospel story. (Isa. 43:7, Acts 15:17, 2 Chron. 7:14, Rev. 3:12; 14:1)
Precedence: Adam named Eve. Twice. (Gen. 2:23; 3:20)
Another option, however, for couples is meshing their surname – where the family names of both the wife and the husband are combined to create a new one. Meshing is very popular in the US. Famously, rapper Jay Z (real name Shawn Carter) combined his name with his wife, Beyonce, to become Shawn Knowles-Carter.
Celebrities who changed their names after marriage
Kim Kardashian is now formally known as Kim Kardashian West after marrying Kanye West.
Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake. Biel officially took her man's last name but she will still be professional known as Jessica Biel.
Jada Pinkett and Will Smith. Pinkett has been known professionally as Jada Pinkett Smith since tying the knot with Will Smith in 1997.
The news of the split between Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck surprised many because they were the IT couple, and because they were somewhat branded the poster child of how a celebrity marriage should be. Anyway, she used Jennifer Garner for professional purposes, but she's legally Jennifer Affleck.
For brides to be who are grappling with whether to change their name or not, one guiding question you should consider is “What’s in a name?” Your answer to this question will then steer your decision.